Just For Fun

d jump 2About a year ago, I attended a talk about planning for a brilliant career in agility. I always enjoy hearing people talk about the sport and seeing what sorts of things I can take home to my work with Dahlia. Going to these sorts of talks has often solidified things in my mind and even made me realize things I wasn’t aware of before. The first one I went to made me realize that by talking down my dog’s performance, I was creating a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy and making the whole thing very much not fun for myself. It changed the way I related to my dog and it changed the way I looked at the game we played.

This time was no different.

The instructor got on the topic of how agility should be fun. And one woman, almost annoyed at this idea, asked the all-important question: “Ok fun is fine and all that, but who is really doing this for something other than that Q?”

I raised my hand without thinking and said “Well, me.”

And that’s when it hit me.

I wasn’t just taking a break from trials. I was done trialing.

In January 2013, Dahlia and I had a disastrous trial. She was so stressed out that she simply didn’t move off the start line. I had to hook her up and take her out on leash. It happened twice at the same trial and so I scratched her from the rest of it and went home.

It turned out to not be a one-time thing.

We went to other trials with similar results. She would be fine in class, happy even, but then we’d go to a trial and she’d shut down completely. I got the questions, of course. Why is your dog like that? What’s wrong with her? I imagined the looks, the heads shaking, the Is that dog even trained? What did she do to cause that to happen?

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This is a real t-shirt I wear.

I’m sure no one was thinking anything of the sort, but the thoughts were in my mind regardless. Which made me more stressed. Which made my dog more stressed. Which led to a complete break-down in communication.

The trial stress started to invade classes. By the time July of that year rolled around, Dahlia was having the same issues at class as she had been having at trials. We struggled to get her to pay attention to me, struggled to do even the simplest of things. Two jumps in a row? She couldn’t handle it.

I almost threw in the towel, but instead my instructor suggested taking a break from trials to focus on Dahlia’s stress-related issues. So we did that, taking one jump out to a quiet place in the park and rebuilding her confidence in a low-stress environment.

By the time October rolled around, I had a completely different dog. Her speed was increasing, her focus had increased, she was excited and happy and moving. We were doing Excellent and Masters levels courses in class and while we weren’t the best dogs in class (not by far!) we were holding our own.

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I vowed to take her back to a trial in April..

And then didn’t.

I vowed to take her back that following October.

And then didn’t.

The following April rolled around and still I didn’t take her to a trial.

And that’s when I finally realized it. We weren’t taking classes to prep for our next trial. We were just doing it because it was fun.

When you’re involved in dog sports, you hear from a lot of people that it’s supposed to be fun. That if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong. That it has to be fun for the dog. The reality is that going to trials was not fun for Dahlia and I. She was unreliable at trials, sometimes moving with great speed and excitement but often shutting down completely. I got stressed at trials, which contributed to the problem. I would wake the morning of a trial with a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach and I dreaded walking to that line when I was there. What should have been a fun hobby was very much not fun for me or for Dahlia.

Could I have forced the issue? Taken her to trial after trial to try to get her used to the atmosphere, paid money to do a jump or two and throw a party? Certainly. But why?

We were having fun without the trials and Q’s and ribbons.

d jump 3And that’s not something a lot of people are taught when they step into agility classes. You can do agility just for fun. You can do it because it increases your dog’s confidence. You can do it because it strengthens your bond with your dog. You can do it because it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun.

That’s become my measure for a good class: Did my dog have fun? If not, assess what went wrong and try to get back to its being fun. If she did, then carry on. We go each and every week and we work our tails off and we come out smiling.

For me, that’s a greater reward than any Q or ribbon ever could be.

Working Like a Dog – Agility Trials Don’t Run Themselves!

Recently a post cropped up on one of the agility Facebook groups that I am a part of regarding a most popular unpopular topic: volunteering at agility trials.  And how to get more volunteers.  In 2011 the Very Popular Agility Blog, Agility Nerd, organized a group blogging event on the topic of trial volunteering – and there were many participants.  There are a Lot of Feelings! about trial volunteering.

Agility is a whole lot of fun.  It is also heavy. (seriously, have you ever moved an A-frame?)  Agility requires a lot of organization.  It requires a lot of work.  It takes a lot of time and people to keep an agility trial moving smoothly.  And somebody has to do it.  A lot of sombodies.

In the realm of agility competitor tenure, I have a whole year and a half of trialing experience.  (So, not a whole lot!)  At my first trial there was a frazzled looking woman begging in a hoarse voice for workers.  It is a scene I have witnessed at every single agility trial that I have gone to since.  This person is the ‘volunteer coordinator’ and it is her job to round up competitors to volunteer to be part of the agility trial machine.  The day of that first trial I was a clueless newbie, but I volunteered to work as “ring crew” because hey, those bars aren’t going to set themselves.  It took me one day to realize a few things: that February trial was in a barn and it was cold but the ring crew chair out in the dusty sidelines of that ring had a propane heater next to it – it was officially the warmest seat in the house.  It was also a front row seat to the action – I was able to be up close and personal to watch experienced competitors and how they chose to handle sequences.  It was a learning experience for me.  It was the beginning of my passion for volunteering.  In fact, now I am that frazzled woman with the hoarse voice begging people to work – I am a volunteer coordinator.

What does it take to keep an agility trial running smoothly?
The list of jobs at an agility trial is more extensive than I ever realized.  No – the hosting club cannot do it all.  The trial committee is comprised of a small handful of very busy individuals who are trying to keep everything afloat and get the results out in a timely fashion – somebody else is going to have to set the bars in the ring.

Chief Course Builder and Course Builders take those course maps that we receive and make them come alive.  They move all of the heavy equipment around, they assemble the contact equipment, they make sure everything matches up to the map.  They create the playground!
The Gate Steward is an excuse to be loud and bossy!  The trial run order is posted on a board mounted on a stand outside of the ring entrance.  The gate steward makes sure that the competitors and their dogs are entering the ring in a timely manner, as well as shouting out for the next two to three dogs to be ready and close to the ring.
The Scribe is in charge of recording faults signaled by the judge and for writing the course time down on the score sheet.  The Scribe has to watch and listen to the judge for these faults, or for points called during game classes.  This is no job for the daydreamers!
Timer does just that – they time the runs!  Depending on what club is hosting the trial, the timer could be using a stopwatch (yikes!), or more commonly an electronic timing device will be used.  The timer must focus on the run and the equipment, and make sure that nothing malfunctions – if it does they need to restart or adjust the timer so that the team in the ring receives an accurate time.
Leash Runner spends the entire class walking leashes from the entrance end of the ring (where the competitor will remove it from the dog and drop it or fling it behind them…) and moving those leashes to the exit end of the ring so that it is waiting to be put back onto the dog after his run.
Score Runner spends the entire class accepting score sheets from the scribe, and bringing them to the score table so that they can be recorded into the results.
Ring Crew involves sitting in a chair out in the ring and: fixing displaced bars, “fluffing” the chute (or collapsed tunnel.), changing: jump, tire, and Aframe heights.  There are single bar jumps and then there are more complicated “double”, “triple”, and “viaduct” jumps.  There is the broad jump, a series of flat boards laying on the ground.  Sometimes there are electronic timing devices on either side of the start and finish obstacles, and depending on what variety they are – these devices need to be adjusted to match the jump height as well.  All of the adjustments of these obstacles fall onto the ring crew.

Things get a little hairy when it comes to filling all of these positions because the fact is: Agility trials cannot run without volunteers, but nobody can force people to volunteer.  Trials are literally halted in their tracks if the key positions are not filled.  This is perceived by some as bullying competitors into volunteering, but the truth of halting a trial in need of volunteers is that: somebody has to do it, “the show cannot go on” until there is proper support in the ring.  Turning over the ring or changing a jump height can take two or three times as long without enough workers.  And while that does not seem like a big deal, the wasted time adds up.  Trials lacking in volunteers can easily run hours longer than trials that are properly “staffed.”  This sounds like an absurd “old wives tale” created by evil volunteer coordinators to coerce errant competitors into volunteering at a trial, but it is absolutely true!

I have seen hosting clubs offer any of the following to volunteers: free meals, free drinks or coffee, free candy or other food, coupons for reduction in future trial entries and raffle tickets for cool dog gear.  I am in the “you had me at free coffee” camp, but I know many others are not so easily persuaded.

There are many reasons that people do not like to volunteer at agility trials and I have never known it to be “laziness”:

Somebody was mean to me when I volunteered.
This happens.  A lot more than it should.  A new competitor offers to volunteer and they are thrown in over their head with a job that needs to be filled, but that nobody bothers to explain to them.  And then when the ring is running and they make a mistake, somebody snaps at them and hurts their feelings.  If you are a new competitor and you volunteer, thank you.  So much.  If you are a volunteer coordinator, please try very hard to not dump new volunteers in over their head.  It is important.  And if you are a seasoned competitor and you feel frustrated with somebody who isn’t doing their ring job perfectly, take a deep breath and bite your tongue.  Nothing disgusts me more than a competitor being mean to a volunteer.  There is no excuse for it.  Nobody comes to an agility show to be belittled for doing a job they have volunteered to do for free.  Be nice to each other.  Take time to explain agility jobs.  Nothing in the ring is terribly difficult, but some jobs take a little more time and understanding of the sport to master than others.

I paid a lot for my entry fees, I should not need to volunteer.
This seems like a valid reason!  Agility is an expensive hobby.  We spend a lot of money on training classes, equipment, education, trial gear and our entry fees.  It all adds up to a sum that we might like to pretend doesn’t exist and it is hard to understand why we should have to go to a trial and not just relax and enjoy ourselves and our dogs.  After all, it is our weekend, our hobby, our fun – not our job!  The cold hard fact is: this is the reality of this sport.  Our trials need staffing, and lots of it.  Some dog sports don’t need quite so many hands on deck, but if you are going to go to agility trials, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.  That is not going to change.  Your entry fees do not support buying workers for agility trials – if that happened, entry fees would simply go up.  And nobody wants that!

I have done my time.
I don’t have a great grasp on this reason, since I am a fairly new competitor.  But truly, I can respect it.  If you are 10 plus years into agility trialing, and have spent those years working your tail off at trial after trial, it is understandable to feel like the new blood should shoulder a heavier work load.  Many older competitors are not physically able to do a high demand job like leash running or ring crew.  But…the job still needs to be done.  New competitors need seasoned pros to show them the ropes.  Please, if you only pick up the timer for one short class or jump height a day, it is such a huge help.  And all of your hard work in years past was much appreciated, and is unfortunately still needed as you continue to compete.

I just want to relax in between runs.
This goes hand in hand with my second ‘reason’.  And I get it.  I love to read books and hang out with my dogs, and the gaping amount of time that I wait in between agility runs is nice to catch up on my reading.  But again.  Our sport needs workers.  Period.  This is the way things are.  So please, work a class or two per day – everything and anything is an enormous help.  It might mean that somebody gets to have the only break that they might get during the entire trial to enjoy lunch and sitting down with their dog.

 

There may well be many many more reasons, but these are the reasons that so often reach my ears.  I personally love to volunteer at trials.  I love to have a front row seat on the action, it makes my day go faster, it helps me to understand the sport better and it helps me make friends with my fellow competitors.  We are a team with our dog in the ring, but we are a team with our fellow competitors when it comes to making an agility trial run smoothly – like it or not.  Some may not love volunteering as much as I do, but somebody must do this work.  A lot of somebodies.  Imagine if you walked into the ring late because nobody reminded you that your dog was next on the line, and the course was not set up according to the course map, all of the bars were the wrong height, nobody moved your leash to the exit gate, nobody recorded your score or time.  Really, imagine that.  Volunteers do all of these things for you.  Please, help to return the favor.  Our sport needs you.

Sometimes Everything Just Sucks

I am totally getting this plate someday

If I ever get a dog-themed vanity license plate, it’s going to be this one.

You know, when you (co-)write a blog about dog training and dog sports, it’s really easy to slip into a pattern of just talking about the good stuff: your training successes, the things you’ve done well, the ribbons you’ve won, the obstacles you’ve conquered.  It’s a little bit like Facebook: if you spend too much time over there, you can come away thinking that everyone you know is constantly winning awards, getting married, having babies, getting promotions at work and so forth.  One of the unintended consequences of Facebook is that it sometimes makes you feel like your own life–with your messy kitchen and your half-eaten bowl of cereal and your pile of unfinished work–just doesn’t measure up to the lives of everyone you know.  And it’s the same thing when you read dog blogs–you read about other people’s trial successes and the cool training they’re doing and the huge ribbons their dogs picked up last weekend–and then you look over at your dog, who has dirt on her nose from digging a hole in your yard and is in the process of chewing on something alarming, and you think, “Nope. That is not my dog, that is not my life, those are not going to be my ribbons.”

So it is in the service of balance that I am now going to come over to our usually sunny and positive blog and tell you this: I went to a trial last weekend, and it was awful.  The dogs and I all performed terribly, I didn’t learn very much from the experience, and I didn’t leave feeling like, “Hey, this is something to build on, and it’ll be a great baseline for when we start practicing again” (which is generally how I feel at the end of trials: usually, while I know that things weren’t perfect, I am proud of my dogs and ready to start fixing the places where we made mistakes.)  Not this time, though. This time I left just feeling depressed and frustrated, and the thought of going home and picking up my clicker and my rally cards again just bummed me out.

My trial experience was stressful for a lot of reasons: it was multi-day, it was far from home, it was expensive, it was one of the few trials in my area that my tripod dog is allowed to participate in (which meant that it was high stakes, title-wise), it was going to be my puppy’s debut; most importantly, though, we didn’t do great when we competed at the same venue last year, and I was full of determination that I was going to Show Them This Time, blah blah blah.  So I worked hard with my dogs to prep for this trial.  We practiced the exercises to the point where all three dogs could do them in tandem anywhere we were. We trained in novel venues–the pet store, the hardware store, the busy park–and we worked a lot on focusing through distractions.  I did perch work with Nellie and Widget, working hard to get their heels nice and snappy.  We did some mock trials with a training friend of ours, and I even enrolled the older dogs in a class, just so we could get some practice performing in front of a group of people and dogs. We practiced in the hotel room the night before the trial, and everyone looked gorgeous. And I was confident! I was sure we were going to leave the trial with a new title for every dog! I put my entry forms in, paid my fees and showed up early to the venue, ready to take on the world and show everyone how awesome my dogs were.

We bombed. Every one of the dogs NQed in every event I entered them in.  And true to their natures, when my dogs NQ, they do not mess around. Some people NQ because, say, their sits are a little crooked or they misread a card and do the wrong kind of turn.  When my dogs NQ, they run out of the ring and go roll in poop under a tree, or get so fascinated by the smell of the grass that they they forget I exist completely, or they ping-pong around on leash so much that it looks like I’m trying to walk a kite in a windstorm. It was the kind of thing where I didn’t bother to wait around and hear scores afterward, because there was no possibility at all that we’d Qed. And after all the work we’d put in, and after the effort and time and travel and money….it was embarrassing, because it truly looked like I’d just walked into the ring for a lark without doing any training at all.  I left the trial early, feeling ashamed and sad and like I never wanted to do anything like that again. I wasn’t mad at my dogs–things like this are always the human’s fault–but it was definitely not the fun experience I was hoping to have with them.

And I want to submit that this is something that happens more often than we admit in dog training: sometimes you are hopeful and confident and have plans of action, but sometimes you are frustrated and sad and don’t know how to fix the problem that you’re having.   And increasingly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge to ourselves that this is a real thing: dog training isn’t a constant process of building on your successes, and even careful preparation doesn’t always result in the outcomes you hoped for.  Sometimes things go wrong and you don’t know why.  Sometimes things just suck. And sometimes you don’t want to hear people’s advice about how to solve the problems you’re having and listen to the way they got THEIR perfect dog to do the things your imperfect dog isn’t doing: sometimes you just want to wallow and feel crummy about everything.

What is important, I think, is what comes next after the urge to wallow starts to fade away.  I will admit: it’s been three days since I got home from our bummer trial, and I have had zero desire to work on any training stuff formally.  But I have thrown the ball endless times for my dogs, and we went on a fun hike, and I’ve cuddled on the couch with them watching movies and they’ve sat on my feet and mugged me for bits of my peanut butter sandwich.  They are my buddies, regardless of what they do or do not do at trials, and I love them; that is solid, always.

And I’ve slowly started going over the trial in my mind, and I’ve slowly–very slowly–started to figure out what the trial actually taught me.  I learned that my girls still need practice in the actual ring, and that the faux-ring work we did in advance didn’t quite prepare us well enough.  I learned that my own ring nerves are probably getting transmitted to them, and eventually I’ll need to figure out how to fix that.  I learned that we’ve got to prepare better for specific kinds of distractions.  I learned that the puppy can go into the ring without completely losing her mind.  I learned that Lucy, my reactive dog, is actually at a point where she can go to trials now without threatening to rearrange everyone’s face.  I learned that bringing stuffed frozen Kongs to trials is a very effective strategy for keeping the dogs quiet in their crates.  And I learned that the next venue I try needs to be smaller, lower-key and closer to home. Next week, I will take the girls back to rally class, and I will do my best to consider all of these things and to integrate them into my training. Slowly, slowly.

Ultimately, there’s no bad experience that can’t teach you something. All a trial (or an encounter with the scary dog down the street, or a practice run on a difficult obstacle, or an offleash hike in a strange place)–is, really, is information: your dogs are always learning, and if you never give them a chance to show off what they’re learning, you never get the chance to make an assessment.  Sometimes what they tell you is that they are ready for whatever it is you are asking of them; sometimes what they tell you is that they are decidedly not.  Either way, you can’t know unless you give them the chance to tell you. If you can get something out of an experience, it’s not wasted, even if what you’re getting isn’t what you’d hoped for.

But that kind of Zen-like acceptance comes later.  If you’ve just had a bad experience with your dog, be it a blown trial or a training failure or a snarky episode in the park, you have my permission to not leap into thinking What Does It All Mean? and How Do I Fix This? and How Can I Find The Silver Lining In This? right away.  You don’t have to decide to quit your sport forever, or never trial again, or never go on a walk during the middle of the day; you may decide that eventually, but for now, sleep on it.  For your sake and your dogs’ sake, don’t rush right back into training to try to fix the problem.  Go have some ice cream, take your dogs out somewhere quiet and peaceful and just be with them, give yourself a break for a while.  And know that even if you don’t see it on dog blogs or hear it from the trainers you admire, everyone has the kind of day where they just hit the wall.  Everyone has felt hopeless and like they don’t know what to do next occasionally. We’re not superhuman, and neither are our dogs. As long as your relationship is solid, and as long as you have some hope that someday, down the road at some point, you’ll be able to get something useful out of the experience, then go ahead and wallow. Because everybody’s been there, and sometimes, things are just the worst.

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From the hike we took before our second day of Epic Trial Fail. They may be monsters, but they’re MY monsters.

The Journey to the Level 1 Title

dahlia-crateI started taking agility class in the summer of 2010.  I can’t really say what it was that made me finally bite the bullet and do it.  The idea sat in the back of my mind for over a year before I got up the nerve to contact a place about trying it out.

Once I did finally sign up and started taking classes, I thought it might be something fun I’d do for a little while until we had learned a few things and I felt done with it.  I made it perfectly clear to the instructor that I was just there for fun, that I was not interested in going to a trial, in competing, in ribbons or getting qualifying scores.   She was perfectly fine with that, but always worked with Dahlia and I no differently than her other students.  She talked frequently of when we went to our first trial, not if we ever went.  And I just let it roll off my back.  Dahlia and I were not going to any trials.  I was satisfied with letting her run in class.

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Dog Shaming (or, you know, not.)

I just discovered the blog Dog Shaming a few days ago; I’ve now read it cover-to-cover (or whatever the blog equivalent of that is) and as I was reading it, there were couple of times when I laughed so hard I practically cried. As a person with, uh, ‘quirky’ dogs (and I know a lot of you out there can relate), there’s something so cathartic about seeing other dogs who do the same dumb stuff that your dumb dogs do. We all know there’s nothing worse than the moment when you come home to, say, a couch that now has a bunch of suspicious holes in it; you look at your dog, and you think about the money, and you start feeling this terrible combination of despair and sadness about your total failure as a trainer and slight anger at your dog, even though you know it’s irrational, and a little shock that somehow you let this couch-eating monster into your house, you thought your life was going to be so different, you never got that apartment in Paris, and now look at you, you can’t even keep a dumb couch in one piece….so anyway, it’s probably better for all of us that we can now go look at a bunch of Dachshunds next to overturned trash cans and laugh our heads off instead.

We’ve got a lot of different viewpoints on a lot of different things here at Team Unruly. However, there are a few key points that we can all agree on. The first is that you’ve got to know your dog: you’ve got to have a good sense of your dog’s likes and dislikes, you need to know what his triggers are, what scares him, what annoys him, how much of any given thing he’ll tolerate, what he loves, etc.  And that’s your specific dog: not the breed, not all-the-dogs-you’ve-had-before, the actual animal sitting in front of you (possibly with couch pieces in his mouth.)  The second is that it’s really important to be your dog’s advocate: it’s your job to know your dog well enough that you can keep her out of harm’s way, that you can manage situations that might stress her or freak her out, that you can get her the food and the treatment and the special squeaky balls that she needs regardless of what anybody says, and most importantly, that you can prevent problems before they happen and set your dog up for success. (The third point, incidentally, is that Ella’s Lead makes awesome collars.)

I believe in these principles. They are at the heart of any advice I’ve ever given anyone about their dogs, and they’re in the back of my mind every time my dogs and I are in a new situation together.  I’ve also been thinking a lot because lately, I have been beginning to fear that I’m using them as a crutch.

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That’s gonna leave a mark: French Ring Trial at Cher Car Kennels

Last weekend, a friend of mine posted on Facebook “This may seem like an odd question to most but why don’t more people want to get bitten by dogs?”

Gumbo the French Bulldog puppy is ready to trial! Tiega the Malinois is not so sure.

I’ve gotta say, I wonder the same thing. Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a French Ring trial hosted by the local Cher Car Kennels. After spending the day with some amazing trainers and their phenomenal dogs, I definitely feel the itch to get involved in bitework sports – it looks like fun!

First, a bit of background. “French Ring Sport”, or just French Ring, is a dog sport that combines obedience, agility and bitework. Some of the elements are similar to Schutzhund and Mondio, other popular dog sports in the U.S. I won’t go into the history of French Ring and the structure of the oversight organization because this isn’t my sport and I’m not that familiar with it, but this weekend I learned that the judge for the trials was M. Serge Gladieux, the head of French Ring Sport, Mondio Ring and Schutzhund/IPO in France! In addition to this extremely well-qualified judge, the event also had two talented decoys, Jimmy Vanhove (France L3) and Wade Morell (NARA L1). The event was held at Cher Car Kennels in St Johns, Michigan.

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You only get one Novice A dog: In praise of Luce.

Luce CD!

Wearing her bling well.

When I adopted Luce from the shelter, I had some vague notion that I’d like to play some sort of dog sport with her, maybe agility. I’d never trained a dog before, but I’d been working with the public’s dogs in either a boarding kennel or veterinary hospital setting for several years. I felt pretty confident that I could adopt a dog from the shelter and train it without too much trouble.

I was woefully unprepared for what I brought home. Luce was a young adult pit bull, completely untrained, quick to fire up, slow to settle down, with absolutely no self-control. She was reactive, dog-aggressive, and had impressive barrier-frustration issues. I completely understand why she was in the shelter with nobody looking for her (she’d been picked up as a stray). She was a maniac. But she was also mine.

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The Perfectly Imperfect Trial (or, The Trial as Assessment)

runningThis past weekend Dahlia and I attended a CPE (Canine Performance Events, Inc.) agility trial.  This was our sixth trial since we began competing last November.  We’ve gone to them with varying degrees of success.  On one turn Dahlia will be perfect.  Slow and steady, but perfect.  She’ll nail down the entire course with no faults and earn a Q (qualifying score).  On another turn she will sit and stare at you and not move a muscle, finally crawling off into the shade and rolling over.  There has been a lot of joy.  And also a lot of heartbreak and frustration.

After our first trial (one Q out of four runs) our instructor called together an “Agility Anonymous” meeting for all of the folks who train with her.  It was a two-hour long discussion about training and trialing in agility and other dog sports.

One of the most important things I got out of that meeting was to stop looking at trials as “competitions” but rather to look at them as “assessments.”  It was a chance to see how all the hard work you put in during classes and training sessions was going.  And it was also a chance to see what needed work.  Sometimes you know the latter.  Sometimes it surprises you.

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